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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, December 19, 2005

philosophy and fiction

Still in the late stage of my cold, but my head is relatively clear. Kimmie, on the other hand, is in full-blown acute nasopharyngitis, and home from work today. She putters upstairs, wrapping Christmas presents.

Yesterday, after my post about my interest in learning more about evil and buying a book online about it (that order got canceled; had to order another copy from a different seller in Carlsbad, California), I picked up the novel Shantaram at teatime and read chapter 23. I was surprised to discover that the chapter was centered on a long discussion of evil between the protagonist Lin and the Bombay crime-boss Khader. I had a strong feeling of meaningful coincidence--of things being brought together for me at exactly this time, because I need them now.

As I make my way through Shantaram I am developing ever more respect for its author, Gregory David Roberts. I continue to enjoy the book and even, recently, felt a slight temptation to keep reading after I had finished a chapter--something I probably haven't felt (for a novel) for 20 years! (I didn't give in; I would have been reading only for information--to find out what happens--and it would no longer be an aesthetic experience. Occasionally I will indulge this urge with nonfiction, since I am usually reading that only for information, but even then I find that my enjoyment of a book quickly tails off. Usually I prefer simply to switch books in order to keep the reading experience fresh-feeling.)

As I read chapter 23 I recognized that Roberts takes his philosophy seriously: that one of his self-descriptors in the novel's second paragraph ("a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime") was not a mere throwaway but an earnest statement of a major interest of his. In this chapter Khader, the fatherly, intellectual, Muslim mafia boss, who bestows teachings and blessings on his many clients and underlings in the manner of an Asian holy man, expounds his own philosophy of evil as relating to the modern science of complexity and the scientific concept of the tendency toward complexity: good is that which works with the universe toward greater complexity; evil is that which works against it. It was an interesting, serious take on evil, and Roberts spent a good number of pages on it as Lin tried to understand what he was being told. At the same time it was part of the character dynamic unfolding between Lin, the fugitive convict who has severed his past life from himself, and Khader, an adoptive father-figure. How can a crime-boss be dispensing spiritual teachings? I don't know--but he can, and he does.

It is just one of countless paradoxes of the Indian world that Roberts portrays. And Lin is his own kind of paradox: a dried-out drug addict, violent criminal, and street-fighter who is also ingenuous, romantic, and poetic. If he were written in the third person he might be impossible to accept: for he is almost impossibly heroic in many ways (defying oppressors, saving people's lives, doing acts of great selflessness and generosity). But as a first-person character Lin conveys a believable sense of no-big-dealness to his actions. Aware of his dark side, he feels no special pride in his light.

So: at 497 pages in I am enjoying Shantaram just as much as I did on page 1--a rare occurrence. Doubly so, considering that the novel, for its size, is structurally rather simple and slight. There are a couple of simple story-questions on the go--the things we want to find out--but they proceed slowly, slowly. Roberts, like India, is in no rush, and has countless wonders to unfold to the visitor en route. It's as though the real story is about Lin's salvation, but Lin himself has no awareness of this, so the narration is all about the phantasmagoria of his existence--the heavens and hells visited by the soul on its way to its destiny.

The day slips away. Think I'll do some more reading right now.


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